Mikhail Moiseyevich Botvinnik (; ) ( – May 5, 1995) was a Russian International Grandmaster and long-time World Chess Champion. As an electrical engineer, he was one of the very few famous chess players who achieved distinction in another career while playing top-class competitive chess.
Botvinnik was the first world-class player to develop within the Soviet Union, putting him under political pressure but also giving him considerable influence within Soviet chess. From time to time he was accused of using that influence to his own advantage, but the evidence is unclear and some suggests he resisted attempts by Soviet officials to intimidate some of his rivals.
Botvinnik also played a major role in the organization of chess, making a significant contribution to the design of the World Chess Championship system after World War II and becoming a leading member of the coaching system that enabled the Soviet Union to dominate top-class chess during that time. His famous pupils include World Champions Anatoly Karpov, Garry Kasparov and Vladimir Kramnik.
Early yearsMikhail Botvinnik, was born into a Russian-Jewish family, in Kuokkala, Grand Duchy of Finland (now Repino, Russia) near St. Petersburg, Russia. His father, Moisey Botvinnik, was a dental technician.
Botvinnik first came to the notice of the chess world at the age of 14, when he defeated the world champion, José Raúl Capablanca, in a simultaneous exhibition. He had started playing only two years earlier.
His progress was fairly rapid, mostly under the training of Soviet Master and coach Abram Model, in Leningrad. He qualified for his first USSR Championship final stage in 1927 as the youngest player ever at that time, tied for 5th place and won the title of National Master. This is tied for the most ever with Mikhail Tal. His 1945 win was with an utterly dominant score of 15/17.
First international successesBotvinnik drew a 1933 match of 12 games, held in Leningrad and Moscow, against Salo Flohr, one of the world's top players. He then travelled to Hastings 1934–35, his first tournament outside the USSR, but could place only in a tie for 5th-6th places, with 5/9. He wrote in his first games collection book that he had arrived at Hastings only two hours before the first round began, a mistake he would not make again.
By age 24,Botvinnik was competing on equal terms with the world's elite, chalking up successes in some of the strongest tournaments of the day: First (equal with Flohr) at Moscow 1935, ahead of Emanuel Lasker and Capablanca; and First (equal with Capablanca) at the great Nottingham 1936 chess tournament, ahead of Euwe and Alekhine. For the victory at Nottingham, the first by a Soviet Master outside his own country, Botvinnik was decorated with the order of The Badge of Honour by the Soviet government. For Nottingham, Botvinnik arrived ten days before the tournament started.
Botvinnik drew a 1937 challenge match of 13 games against Grigory Levenfish, who had won the Soviet Championship at Tbilisi earlier that year; Botvinnik had not competed in that event.
World title contender
The year 1938 brought the famous AVRO tournament in the Netherlands, which featured the world's top eight players, and may have been the strongest tournament yet seen – some chess historians believe that it is the strongest ever held. The winner was supposed to get a title match with the World Champion Alexander Alekhine. Botvinnik placed third (behind Paul Keres and Reuben Fine. Alekhine accepted a challenge from Botvinnik, but the arrival of World War II prevented a World Championship match. Viktor Baturinsky wrote, in his introduction to Botvinnik's own book Botvinnik's Best Games 1947–1970 (page 2), "Now came Botvinnik's turn to defend his title in accordance with the new qualifying system which he himself had outlined in 1946."
On the basis of his strong results during and just after World War II, Botvinnik was one of five players to contest the 1948 World Chess Championship, which was held at The Hague and Moscow. He won the 1948 tournament convincingly, with a score of 14/20, three points clear, becoming the sixth World Chess Champion.
Botvinnik then held the title, with two brief interruptions, for the next fifteen years, during which he played seven world championship matches. In 1951, he drew with David Bronstein over 24 games in Moscow, +5 =14 -5, keeping the world title; but it was a struggle for Botvinnik, who won the second-last game and drew the last in order to tie the match. In 1954, he drew with Vasily Smyslov over 24 games at Moscow, +7 =10 -7, again keeping the title. In 1957 he lost to Smyslov by 9.5–12.5 in Moscow, but the rules allowed him a rematch without having to go through the Candidates' Tournament, and in 1958 he won the rematch in Moscow; Smyslov said his health was poor during the return match. In 1960 Botvinnik was convincingly beaten by the 23-year old Mikhail Tal, by 8½-12½ at Moscow; but again he exercised his right to a rematch in 1961, and won by 13–8 in Moscow. Commentators agreed that Tal's play was weaker in the rematch, probably due to his health, but also that Botvinnik's play was better than in the 1960 match, largely due to thorough preparation. Botvinnik changed his style in the rematch, avoiding the tactical complications in which Tal excelled and aiming for closed positions and endgames, where Tal's technique was not outstanding. FIDE had by then altered the rules, and he was not allowed a rematch. The rematch rule was nicknamed the 'Botvinnik rule', because he twice benefited from it.
Botvinnik gained a doctorate in engineering in 1951. As an electrical engineer, he was one of the very few famous chess players who achieved distinction in another career while playing top-class competitive chess.
Botvinnik's playing record was relatively poor in the early 1950s: he did not play in the 1950 Soviet Championship, struggled to draw his 1951 world championship match with Bronstein, placed only 5th in the 1951 Soviet Championship, and tied for 3rd in the 1952 Geza Maroczy Memorial tournament in Budapest; and he had also performed poorly in Soviet training contests. Botvinnik did not play in the Soviet team that won the 1952 Chess Olympiad in Helsinki: the players voted for the line-up and placed Botvinnik on second board, with Keres on top board; Botvinnik protested and refused to play. Keres' playing record from 1950 to early 1952 had been outstanding.
Botvinnik also played twice for the USSR in the European Team Championship. At Oberhausen 1961, he scored 6/9 for the gold medal on board one. But at Hamburg 1965, he struggled on board two with only 3½/8. Both times the Soviet Union won the team gold medals. Botvinnik played one of the final events of his career at the Russia (USSR) vs Rest of the World match in Belgrade 1970, scoring 2½/4 against Milan Matulovic, as the USSR narrowly triumphed.
Late careerAfter losing the world title to Tigran Petrosian for the final time in Moscow in 1963, Botvinnik withdrew from the World Championship cycle. But he remained involved with competitive chess, appearing in several highly-rated tournaments and continuing to produce memorable games.
He retired from competitive play in 1970 aged 59, preferring instead to occupy himself with the development of computer chess programs and to assist with the training of younger Soviet players, earning him the nickname of "Patriarch of the Soviet Chess School" (see below).
Botvinnik's autobiography, K Dostizheniyu Tseli, was published in Russian in 1978, and in English translation as Achieving the Aim (ISBN 0-08-024120-4) in 1981. A staunch Communist, he was noticeably shaken by the collapse of the Soviet Union and lost some of his standing in Russian chess during the Boris Yeltsin era. Botvinnik died of cancer in 1995.
Political controversiesThe Soviet Union regarded chess as a symbol of Communist superiority, and hence the Soviet chess world was extremely politicized. As Botvinnik was the first world-class player produced by the Soviet Union, everything he said or did (or did not say or do) had political repercussions, and there were rumors that Soviet opponents were given hints that they should not beat him.
David Bronstein wrote that Boris Verlinsky had won the 1929 Soviet Championship and was granted the first Soviet Grandmaster title for this achievement, yet he was later stripped of it, when it was thought more politically correct to make Botvinnik the first official Soviet GM (not the same thing as the FIDE Grandmaster title). The game was drawn, and Botvinnik shared first place with Salo Flohr.
Botvinnik sent an effusive telegram of thanks to Stalin after his victory at the great tournament in Nottingham in 1936. Many years later he said that it had been written in Moscow and that KGB agents told him to sign it.
Botvinnik played relatively poorly in the very strong 1940 Soviet Championship, finishing in a tie for 5th-6th places, with 11.5/19, two full points behind Igor Bondarevsky and Andor Lilienthal. With World War II underway by this time, and the strong possibility of little or no chess for some time in the future, Botvinnik seems to have prevailed upon the Soviet chess leadership to hold another tournament "in order to clarify the situation". This wound up being the 1941 Absolute Championship of the USSR, which featured the top six finishers from the 1940 event, playing each other four times. After a personal appeal to the defence minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, Botvinnik was exempted from war work for three days a week in order to concentrate on chess preparations. He won this tournament convincingly, and thus reclaimed his position as the USSR's top player. Bronstein claimed that at the end of the 1946 Groningen tournament, a few months after the death of reigning world champion Alexander Alekhine, Botvinnik personally invited Samuel Reshevsky, Reuben Fine, Max Euwe, Vasily Smyslov, and Paul Keres to join him in a tournament to decide the new world champion.
Since Keres lost his first four games against Botvinnik in the 1948 World Championship tournament, suspicions are sometimes raised that Keres was forced to "throw" games to allow Botvinnik to win the Championship. Chess historian Taylor Kingston investigated all the available evidence and arguments, and concluded that: Soviet chess officials gave Keres strong hints that he should not hinder Botvinnik's attempt to win the World Championship; Botvinnik only discovered this about half-way through the tournament and protested so strongly that he angered Soviet officials; Keres probably did not deliberately lose games to Botvinnik or anyone else in the tournament.
Bronstein insinuated that Soviet officials pressured him to lose in the 1951 world championship match so that Botvinnik would keep the title.
In 1956 FIDE changed the world championship rules so that a defeated champion would have the right to a return match. Yuri Averbakh alleged that this was done at the urging of the two Soviet representatives in FIDE, who were personal friends of Botvinnik. Averbakh also claims that Botvinnik's friends were behind FIDE's decision in 1956 to limit the number of players from the same country that could compete in the Candidates Tournament, and that this was to Botvinnik's advantage as it reduced the number of Soviet players he might have to meet in the title match.
There is a story that Botvinnik asked to be allowed to play in the 1956 Candidates Tournament, as he wanted to use the event as part of his warm-up for the next year's title match; Botvinnik played few tournaments during his championship years, as he spent most of his time between world championship matches working as an engineer. His request was rejected as: if Botvinnik had not taken one of the first two places, it would have been hard to regard him as the real world champion going into the match; and there was a theoretical risk that he might deliberately lose to the opponent he'd rather face while fighting his hardest against his most dangerous rival.
Mikhail Tal's chronic kidney problems contributed to his defeat in his 1961 return match with Botvinnik, and his doctors in Riga advised that he should postpone the match for health reasons. Averbakh claimed that Botvinnik would agree to a postponement only if Tal was certified unfit by Moscow doctors, and that Tal then decided to play.
In 1976 Soviet grandmasters were asked to sign a letter condemning Viktor Korchnoi as a "traitor" after Korchnoi defected. Botvinnik evaded this "request" by saying that he wanted to write his own letter denouncing Korchnoi. But by this time his importance had waned and officials would not give him this "privilege", so Botvinnik's name did not appear on the group letter – an outcome Botvinnik may have foreseen.
Playing strength and style
- For more information see Comparing top chess players throughout history
The statistical rating system used in Raymond Keene and Nathan Divinsky's book Warriors of the Mind'' concludes that Botvinnik was the 4th strongest player of all time: behind Garry Kasparov, Anatoly Karpov and Bobby Fischer but ahead of José Raúl Capablanca, Emanuel Lasker, Viktor Korchnoi, Boris Spassky, Vasily Smyslov and Tigran Petrosian. The Chessmetrics system is sensitive to the length of the periods being compared, but places Botvinnik 3rd in a comparison of players' best individual years (1946 for Botvinnik) and 6th in a comparison of 15-year periods (1935–1949 in Botvinnik's case). In 2005 Chessmetrics' creator Jeff Sonas wrote an article which examined various ways of comparing the strength of "world number one" players, some not based on Chessmetrics; and Botvinnik generally emerged as one of the top 6 (the greatest exceptions were in criteria related to tournament results).
This may seem surprising in the light of Botvinnik's results in the 1950s and early 1960s, when he struggled to retain his world title and his tournament results were patchy. But after the FIDE world championship cycle was established in 1948, reigning champions had to play the strongest contender every 3 years, and successful title defenses became less common. Even with this added challenge, Botvinnik still held the world title longer than any of his successors until Garry Kasparov. Botvinnik also became world champion at the relatively late age of 37, because World War II brought international competition to a halt for 6 years; and he was 52 years old when he finally lost his title (only Wilhelm Steinitz and Emanuel Lasker were older when they were defeated). Botvinnik's best years were from 1935 to 1946; and the USSR's 15½-4½ win in the 1945 radio match against the USA proved that the USSR's top players were considerably better than the USA's (who had dominated international team competitions in the 1930s).
Botvinnik generally sought tense positions with chances for both sides; hence his results were often better with the Black pieces as he could avoid lines that were likely to produce draws. He had a strong grasp of long-term strategy, and was often willing to accept weaknesses that his opponent could not exploit in exchange for some advantage that Botvinnik could exploit. Botvinnik saw himself as a "universal player" (all-rounder), in contrast to all-out tactical calculators like Mikhail Tal or purely positional players like Tigran Petrosian. Botvinnik also played many short training matches against strong grandmasters including Salo Flohr, Yuri Averbakh, Viacheslav Ragozin, and Semion Furman – in noisy or smoky rooms if he thought he would have to face such conditions in actual competition.
Although Botvinnik did not use a wide range of openings, he made major contributions to those he did use, for example: the Botvinnik variation of the Semi-Slav Defense in the Queen's Gambit Declined, the Kasparov/Botvinnik system in the Exchange Variation of the Queen's Gambit Declined, the Caro-Kann Defence (both the Panov-Botvinnik Attack for White and various approaches for Black), the Winawer Variation of the French Defence, the Botvinnik System in the English Opening. In his openings research Botvinnik did not aim to produce tactical tricks that would only be effective once but rather systems in which he aimed to understand typical positions and their possibilities better than his rivals.
In 1963 Botvinnik founded his own school within the Soviet coaching system, and its graduates include world champions Anatoly Karpov, Garry Kasparov and Vladimir Kramnik, and other top-class players such as Alexei Shirov, Vladimir Akopian and Jaan Ehlvest. Botvinnik was not an infallible spotter of chess talent: although he said of the 11-year old Kasparov, "The future of chess lies in the hands of this young man," he said on first seeing Karpov, "The boy doesn't have a clue about chess, and there's no future at all for him in this profession." But Karpov recounts fondly his youthful memories of the Botvinnik school and credits Botvinnik's training, especially the homework he assigned, with a marked improvement in his own play. Kasparov presents Botvinnik almost as a kind of father figure, going some way towards balancing the common public perception of Botvinnik as dour and aloof; and Kasparov inherited Botvinnik's emphasis on preparation, research and innovation. Botvinnik was still playing a major teaching role in his late 70s, when Kramnik entered the school, and made a favorable impression on his pupil.
Engineering was as much of a passion for Botvinnik as chess – at Nottingham in 1936, where he had his first major tournament win outside the USSR, he said "I wish I could do what he's done in electrical engineering" (referring to Milan Vidmar, another grandmaster). Botvinnik's research on chess-playing programs concentrated on "selective searches", which used general chess principles to decide which moves were worth considering. This was the only feasible approach for the primitive computers available in the Soviet Union in the early 1960s, which were only capable of searching three or four half-moves deep (i.e. A's move, B's move, A's move, B's move) if they tried to examine every variation. Botvinnik eventually developed an algorithm that was reasonably good at finding the right move in difficult positions, but it often missed the right move in simple positions, e.g. where it was possible to checkmate in two moves. This "selective" approach turned out to be a blind alley, as computers were powerful enough by the mid-1970s to perform a brute-force search (checking all possible moves) several moves deep and today's vastly more powerful computers do this well enough to compete against human world champions. In September 7, 1991 Botvinnik was awarded a honorary degree in mathematics of the University of Ferrara (Italy) for his work on computer chess.
Notable chess games
- Botvinnik vs Chekover, Moscow 1935, Réti Opening, 1–0 At first sight Botvinnik's opening play looks unpromising, but he knew how his attack would develop.
- Keres vs Botvinnik, USSR Absolute Championship 1941, Nimzoindian Defense, 0–1 Playing as Black, Botvinnik demolishes a world title contender in 22 moves.
- Tolush vs Botvinnik, USSR Championship 1944, 0–1 Long-term positional sacrifices.
- Denker vs Botvinnik, USA vs USSR radio match 1945, 0–1 Botvinnik uses the Botvinnik System in the Semi-Slav Defense to bulldoze US champion Arnold Denker.
- Botvinnik vs Keres, Alekhine Memorial Tournament Moscow 1966, 1–0 Botvinnik shows his superior understanding of closed positions, and when to open them.
- Botvinnik vs Portisch, Monaco 1968, 1–0 A fireworks display starting with an exchange sacrifice on the c-file, a tactic on which Botvinnik wrote the book.
- World chess champions
- The Oxford Companion To Chess
- The Encyclopaedia of Chess
- Kings of Chess
- Twelve Great Chess Players and Their Best Games
- Curse of Kirsan: Adventures in the Chess Underworld
- One Hundred Selected Games
- Botvinnik's Best Games 1947–1970 (translated from the Russian by Bernard Cafferty)
botvinnik in Breton: Mic'hail Botvinnik
botvinnik in Bulgarian: Михаил Ботвиник
botvinnik in Czech: Michail Botvinnik
botvinnik in Danish: Mikhail Botvinnik
botvinnik in German: Michail Moissejewitsch Botwinnik
botvinnik in Modern Greek (1453-): Μιχαήλ Μποτβίννικ
botvinnik in Spanish: Mijaíl Botvínnik
botvinnik in Persian: میخائیل بوتوینیک
botvinnik in French: Mikhaïl Botvinnik
botvinnik in Galician: Mikhail Botvinnik
botvinnik in Indonesian: Mikhail Botvinnik
botvinnik in Italian: Michail Moiseevič Botvinnik
botvinnik in Hebrew: מיכאל בוטביניק
botvinnik in Hungarian: Mihail Mojszejevics Botvinnik
botvinnik in Macedonian: Михаил Ботвиник
botvinnik in Mongolian: Михайл Ботвинник
botvinnik in Dutch: Michail Botvinnik
botvinnik in Japanese: ミハイル・ボトヴィニク
botvinnik in Norwegian: Mikhail Botvinnik
botvinnik in Polish: Michaił Botwinnik
botvinnik in Portuguese: Mikhail Botvinnik
botvinnik in Romanian: Mihail Botvinnik
botvinnik in Russian: Ботвинник, Михаил Моисеевич
botvinnik in Slovak: Michail Moisejevič Botvinnik
botvinnik in Serbian: Михаил Ботвиник
botvinnik in Finnish: Mihail Botvinnik
botvinnik in Swedish: Michail Botvinnik
botvinnik in Vietnamese: Mikhail Moiseyevich Botvinnik
botvinnik in Turkish: Mihail Botvinnik
botvinnik in Ukrainian: Ботвинник Михайло Мойсейович